In Hibiscus, Georgia O'Keeffe's personal connection to her botanical subjects combines with her tenaciously individual and thoroughly modern aesthetic to create a seminal work. It is one of O’Keeffe’s lasting achievements--perhaps her best known--that she could at once convey in a flower the intimate and the monumental, and to transform one of nature's most delicate objects into a powerful artistic statement. O'Keeffe wrote of her approach, "I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at--not copy it." (as quoted in M.P. Balge-Crozier, "Still Life Redefined" in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 69)
O’Keeffe’s innovative renderings of flowers evolved from this interest in sharing through her artwork the intimate details of the environment that she believed many overlooked. She began painting her flower pictures in 1918, and they were shown for the first time by Alfred Steiglitz in 1923. By 1924, she was painting large-scale paintings of floral subjects, which were exhibited the following year at Anderson Galleries. The exhibition became an absolute sensation in the art world, receiving both very positive and very negative reviews. Even when Stieglitz first saw Petunia No. 2 (1924, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico) in O’Keeffe’s studio, he questioned, "Well, Georgia, I don't know how you are going to get away with anything like that--you aren't planning to show it, are you?" (as quoted in M. Constantino, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1994, p. 87) Nicholas Callaway explains this reaction, writing, "Many found [the flower paintings] to be unabashedly sensual, in some cases overtly erotic. Others perceived them as spiritually chaste...Added to the shock of their...outrageous color and scandalous (or sacred) shapes was the fact that these paintings had been created by a woman at a time when the art world was almost exclusively male...[The flower paintings] were extraordinarily controversial and sought-after, and made their maker a celebrity. It was the flowers that begat the O'Keeffe legend..." (Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.)
While the radical nature of these works, and the associated mystique of their thoroughly modern, female creator, has long been analyzed by her critics and admirers, O'Keeffe ascribed a more personal inspiration behind her flower works, well removed from the possible connotations of their designs. In 1939, the year she completed Hibiscus, O'Keeffe explained of her connection to her subject, "A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower--the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower--lean forward to smell it--maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking--or give it to someone to please them. Still--in a way--nobody sees a flower--really--it is so small--we haven't time--and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself--I'll paint what I see--what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, n.p.) The strong connection that O'Keeffe felt to the often overlooked flower enhances the intimacy and emotional power of her magnified flowers that seem to demand attention.
Further discussing the motivation behind O’Keeffe’s choice of still lifes, and flowers in particular, Marjorie Balge-Crozier writes, "Disciplined and independent, she could control this genre to a much greater degree than she could the figure or landscape. She could study the objects with an intensity that made their shapes conducive to abstraction and mystery when represented in paint. As she said, she rarely painted anything she didn't know well, and that meant she needed time to look closely at a thing from many angles to decide what she wanted to do inside her head before starting to work." ("Still Life Redefined," p. 53) In Hibiscus, this close contemplation of the details of the flower’s form is evident in the perfect arrangement of the petals so as to accurately represent the species yet also maximize visual impact.
O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are also notable in the canon of American Modernism for their focus on the natural world, and its femininity, during a time when many Modernists, such as Charles Sheeler, John Marin and Arthur Dove, turned to the masculine, industrial sector for guidance and inspiration in subject matter. "O'Keeffe's work, a counterresponse to technology, was soft, voluptuous and intimate. Full of rapturous colors and yielding surfaces, it furnishes a sense of astonishing discovery...Though the work is explicitly feminine, it is convincingly and triumphantly powerful, a combination that had not before existed." (R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 278)
O’Keeffe’s passion for new discovery amidst nature found the perfect outlet during the year of 1939. She exhibited her bone paintings for the first time that year, works which had come to represent for her the very essence of the Southwestern desert that she loved. 1939 was also the year O’Keeffe set out for the Hawaiian Islands at the behest of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (soon to be renamed the Dole Pineapple Company). Captivated by the dramatic landscape and tropical flowers of the islands, her Hawaiian sojourn spanned nearly three months and included trips to Maui, Oahu and Kauai. Furthermore, O’Keeffe quickly realized the importance, both pictorial and mystical, of the new subjects she found in the Hawaiian landscape. In a letter to Stieglitz she proclaimed, “My idea of the world—nature—things that grow—the fantastic things mountains can do has not been beautiful enough.” (as quoted in J. Sinor, Letters Like the Day, On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2017, n.p.)
During O’Keeffe’s transformative Hawaiian experience, she completed twenty paintings of the region’s dramatic gorges, towering waterfalls, and, of course, brilliant, tropical flowers. By February 1, 1940, the Hawaiian works were back in New York and hanging at An American Place for O’Keeffe’s annual exhibition. As Jennifer Saville notes, “The response to these Hawai’i paintings was enthusiastic, with critics commenting on each theme represented. The New York World-Telegram remarked, ‘Her pictures, always brilliant and exciting, admit us to a world that is alien and strange…Her bird of paradise, her hibiscuses and her fishhooks silhouetted against the blue Hawaiian water are exciting and beautiful.’’’ Further affirmation came from Stieglitz who “informed Eliot Porter, a friend, photographer, and exhibitor at An American Place, that ‘her exhibition is on the walls and creating quite a stir.’” (Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai’i, Kihei, Hawaii, 2011, pp. 20, 25) New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell specifically highlighted the present work in his review, writing, “Especially beautiful, among the new themes, are flower abstractions such as ‘Cup of Silver,’ ‘Hibiscus’ and 'White Bird of Paradise Flower,’ all of them sensitively and cunningly brushed.” (“One Man Shows,” New York Times, February 11, 1940, sec. 9, p. 7)
The vibrant, tropical color palette of Hibiscus epitomizes the brilliance of O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian works that excited such praise from contemporary critics. The curves of the petals of the flowers are transformed into expanses of modulated color in yellow, pink and orange. O'Keeffe frequently acknowledged the substantial influence of her teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, on her works. She recalled, "This man had one dominating idea; to fill space in a beautiful way--and that interested me." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 1) As a student of Dow, O'Keeffe was influenced by his teachings of what was known to his students as "the trinity of power": line, notan--the Japanese concept of using balanced values of darks and lights--and color. Dow also emphasized the pictorial possibilities of botanical subjects: "In his treatise Composition, he recommended flowers as valuable and convenient subjects for composition, advising the student to see 'not a picture of a flower...but rather an irregular pattern of lines and spaces, something far beyond the mere drawing of a flower from nature.'" (C.C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 75)
O'Keeffe supplemented Dow's teaching with her own readings in modern art theory. For example, she incorporated photographic influences bolstered by her close relationships with Stieglitz, of course, but also photographer Paul Strand. Much of O'Keeffe's philosophy about color was also inspired by Wassily Kandinsky's theories, which claimed that "color directly influences the soul." Combining these various influences, O’Keeffe created her own, thoroughly unique approach to color.
Composed of brilliant and varying hues, Hibiscus is a true affirmation of O’Keeffe’s color theory, but also her personal passion for color. "O'Keeffe's early attraction to color developed through her love of the outdoors, a Midwestern upbringing, and her early art education in girls' schools. Colors meant more to her than words. Critic Henry McBride would point out that O'Keeffe's color 'outblazed' that of the other painters in the Stieglitz circle." (J.G. Castro, The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1985, p. 162) Throughout her career, color remained as important to her artistic spirit as form and content. In 1930, O'Keeffe wrote to William Milliken, the Director of the Cleveland Art Museum, "Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world--life as I see it." (as quoted in J. Cowart, J. Hamilton, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 202)
As she does in her best works, O'Keeffe relies on gradations in color to define form and create sculptural depth using varying shades; by transforming the colors, she is able to give the work depth and dimension. The beauty of Hibiscus lies in this innovative exploration of form, which elevates the Hawaiian flower beyond mere representation of its parts. She stated, "It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something. For me, that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 36) This near abstraction evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities that O'Keeffe associated with her flowers and that are the source of their strength.
In Hibiscus, the petals curl and twist over each other, transforming the bloomed flowers into rapturous forms. O'Keeffe magnifies the flowers, forcing the petals to the edge of the canvas, and crops them to simplify the subject into form and pattern. This approach removes all sense of distance and space from the composition, adding to the heightened reality of the blossoms and transforming them from commonplace flowers into something more insistent and proud.
O’Keeffe’s 1939 trip to Hawaii, and the astonishing flora and landscape she discovered on the islands, left a lasting impression on the artist. In a letter to photographer Ansel Adams, she wrote, “I have always intended to return [to Hawaii]…I often think of that trip at Yosemite [with you] as one of the best things I have done—but Hawaii was another.” (as quoted in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai’i, p. 25) Her fascination and love of the region is beautifully articulated in Hibiscus. Swirling with a spirited fluidity, the flowers dance lyrically across the picture plane in an active ebb and flow. The canvas pulsates with energy, alive and vibrating as if in the natural world. Hibiscus is a captivatingly bold and powerful example of the artist’s singular language of modernism that brilliantly captures the elusive boundary between abstraction and representation.